Adjustments [part I]

On a Monday – the day after I booked my flight & two weeks prior to my departure date – I started laying the groundwork for my trip but ended up completely striking out. First I called the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales a.k.a. Department of Natural Resources (hereafter and locally referred to as "the DRNA") since travel books stressed having reservations at campsites. The automated system was entirely in Spanish – I was able to get the gest of the prompts thanks to my years of exposure to the language – and although I pushed the correct buttons, the phone just rang. So I tried the cargo ferry which would take my rental car from the main island to Vieques. Again, the phone endlessly rang. I hung up and attempted Blue Caribe (a bio-bay tour company). At least this time I was able to leave a message. Wanting to secure this tour I also called Abe’s Snorkeling but was forced to leave a message as well.

Three days passed and I had not heard from the companies I contacted. I assumed Blue Caribe checked its voicemails because when I called the second time the message stated the current date. This day Abe’s Snorkeling answered the phone but I was placed on hold for 10 minutes. Irritated, I hung up and retried the DRNA whose main office was located in San Juan. Again I was unable to leave a message for the campsite permits I desperately needed since I could not afford to stay in hotels for an entire week. I knew that there was at least one person working at Abe’s Snorkeling that day and I reached someone on my second attempt. I spoke [in English] with Consuela. I asked if Abe’s would still offer the bio-bay tour even though I was solo. She didn’t say no but she mentioned that there was already a confirmed group for the all-in-one kayak adventure which included the bioluminescent bay and mangroves and snorkeling. Consuela just offered me everything I wanted, without me knowing exactly what I desired.

As I’ve mentioned before, I plan the more important ventures in the beginning of the trip so I was a bit nervous that the all-inclusive bio-bay tour fell on my last day in Vieques. "What if it rains?" I asked Consuela. To my surprise she replied "That makes it all the more wonderful!" Who knew? When I gave her my credit card information to secure my spot she informed me of Abe’s 24 hour cancellation policy. "I will not be canceling" I promised her. Then she asked for my first name. "Michelle" I told her "M-i-c-h-e-l-l-e". "A beautiful French name" Consuela answered. "And your last name?"    "Escalambre. E-s-c-a-l-a-m-b-r-e."   She proclaimed, "Ah ha! A beautiful Spanish name!"

Immediately I connected with Puerto Rico. My hesitation and uncertainty to travel there morphed into readiness. Where I live -- in northeast Ohio -- I am frequently asked "Not to be mean, but what are you?" This non-politically correct question is met with my raised eyebrow & head cocked sideways. Then the person extrapolates and what he/she really meant to ask was if I am Mexican, Hawaiian, Asian or even Samoan? And when any stranger hears my common first name followed by my unique last name, the subsequent unfavorable reaction is "Oh. Wow. That’s long." Folks, it’s not difficult and though there are ten letters none are silent "j"s or involve umlats. Here, people generally don’t know how to approach my foreign-ness and unusual surname. I loved that my last name was natural to Puerto Ricans in the same way I feel more comfortable in my skin in California where Filipinos are hardly the minority.

The more I delved into my plans the more roadblocks I encountered. It took many unreturned messages before the phrase "on island time" occurred to me. Highlighted are the major differences between the northeast United States and our anomalous island-loving friends in the Caribbean Sea:

* EXPECTATION: In Ohio – and as learned in Economics 101 – competition means lower rates for consumers from businesses.
* ACTUALITY: In Puerto Rico, I stopped shopping around for the best price/perks and hurled my money at any company that simply answered the telephone. 75% of the phone numbers I tried were no longer in service.

* EXPECTATION: Punctuality.
* ACTUALITY: Despite all the literature that insisted on reservations with the DRNA, their hours are Monday through Friday, 8:00 – 11:00 and 13:00 – 15:00. These sparse hours benefit no one but the employees. Not to mention, I tried three different extensions to speak to any human being to no avail.

* EXPECTATION: Customer service.
* ACTUALITY: On a Friday night around 23:00 I called [what I thought was] the business number to Montana a.k.a. Mountain Explorer to leave a message for when the store reopened on Monday. To my astonishment someone picked up (apparently the digits on the internet doubled as the business number and a personal cellular number). I kept emphasizing the date I needed (since I would only be in the area one day), but no one jotted down my name, number, credit card information or any details. I hung up grateful for the information from the woman on the other end of the phone but confident that it was not confirmed. I also felt this way with Francisco Che’s tour when he repeatedly said "Yeah, just call me when you arrive in Puerto Rico. Yeah, just call me when you arrive in Puerto Rico." Forgive my haste but I was arriving in Puerto Rico one day before the only day I could fit this tour into my schedule.

* EXPECTATION: Professionalism.
* ACTUALITY: It was a Sunday around 21:00 and I was scouring the internet. I could not find any information regarding scooter rentals on the small island of Vieques except for a basic website that listed two companies. I rang the first company. Not surprisingly, the number was out of service. By default, if the second – and last – company answered the phone they would receive my business. I dialed Fun Brothers and a jubilant man answered in accented English. I knew something was off when I asked him, Miguel, a typical question about renting and – instead of answering – he just laughed hysterically like I cracked a joke. Oh boy. But beggars can’t be choosers so I unsurely provided my Visa account. That was Sunday. On Tuesday I received a call from Miguel admitting he "had too much to drink [on Sunday]" and that he wrote down the wrong credit card number. I remember thinking "Well, at least he was honest."

After dealing with the people "on island time" for the first week, I gradually stopped trying to get the Puerto Ricans to conform to my routines. I wanted structure. I wanted reservations and confirmations. But this was not Puerto Rico and trying to plan everything out was like trying to move the mountain. So, if the mountain will not go to Michelle, Michelle will go to the mountain.

In the end, I was the one who succumbed and changed. I accepted Puerto Rico & Vieques for who they were. They were not like the continental U.S.A. They were not fast-paced or concerned with the status quo. They were on island time. Once I internalized this I realized I embraced their culture as well. I didn’t want to travel to another Ohio, did I? No. I wanted to journey somewhere different and it had been a different – albeit aggravating – experience without me even setting foot on Puerto Rican soil.

I gave up trying to secure campsites with the DRNA. I gave up leaving discontent voicemails. I gave up combing the internet for lodging options in every city. I gave up my highly-organized tendencies and eventually I reset myself to "island time". Half laughing and half fretting, when I departed on 20 March 2012, my only confirmed events were a round-trip flight, rental car, bioluminescent bay tour and scooter.
On a sidenote, to aid future travelers I will include all the information I have at the bottom/end of the respective blog entries. As you will see, some businesses were totally reliable while others were all smoke & mirrors.
* DRNA office at Bosque Estatal de Carite a.k.a. Carite State Forest 787-999-2200 or the headquarters in San Juan 800-981.2005 x 222, 230 or 234 (good luck!)
* Cargo ferry (remember, in rental agreements vehicles are not allowed to leave the mainland... but if you want to gamble) 787-801-0250
* Passenger ferry schedule.